As the Olympics trundle round the corner, dragging tourists with it and pasting billboards as it goes there is a desire to push as many marquee names to the front of the conga as possible. Although reluctant to tread on burst flash bulbs, Michael Phelps is the man who is synonymous with Olympian achievement in the US. Usain Bolt is there for everyone else, the embodiment of athletic razzmatazz. In the UK a lot is being made of David Beckham’s ability to sell the games.
With these characters, though, I find myself wondering whether there are others that need to be championed more. Which brings me to the question: where can I find the sporting polymaths?
In the UK there are cult figures who are put on a pedestal. In terms of Olympic achievement it is hard to look past decathlete Daley Thompson. He won gold medals in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and again at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He is widely considered to be one of Britain’s greatest ever all-round athletes.
In Scotland we also have our own cult figure, the ‘Flying Scotsman’ Eric Liddell, the international rugby player turned athletics star from the 1924 Paris Olympics who was one of the main characters in the Oscar winning 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.
Liddell played on the wing in rugby, but was arguably the fastest man on the planet at the 100m by the time the Games came round. A staunch Christian he refused to enter into heats on a Sunday and therefore could not qualify for the 100m, the event he was best at. Instead he ran the 400m and won gold, and the 200m where he won bronze. Liddell retired at the age of 23 and pursued missionary work in China.
Now the UK has their biggest multi-event star in Jessica Ennis, and she is rarely off the television. However, is this the same?
If you go further back into British sporting folklore there is the domineering figure of CB Fry. He captained England’s cricket team to 0 losses. He played soccer for England, and won an FA Cup final. He played rugby for the world renowned invitational side The Barbarians, as well as Oxford University. He held the long jump world record and was famously offered the throne of Albania and could jump backwards onto a mantelpiece from a standing start.
All of that may sound ridiculous, but it has all been corroborated.
Did the US have sporting figures like this? Jim Thorpe won an Olympic pentathlon and decathlon in 1912 and was a pro footballer as well as a baseball star.
Most recently there have been the careers of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders. Jackson won a Heisman Trophy, played pro football for the Oakland Raiders and Major League Baseball for Kansas City Royals, the Chicago White Sox and the California Angels. In 1989 he had a 100 RBI, 30-home run season.
This can be compared with Sanders who competed as a National Football League Hall of Fame cornerback and was simultaneously an outfielder in MLB. ‘Primetime’ is the only player to have competed in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.
Could either of these men gone for the Olympics? Jackson had the chance, but opted for the financial glamour of the NFL and MLB. This, it seems, is the crux. Dedicating yourself to four years of training is a huge commitment and the money is not fantastic. Yet I cannot help but feel that the Games and the individual events would benefit from more crossover stars. There must surely be some athletes out there capable of it? How do you coax them into abandoning large paychecks for pure sporting glory?